Saturday, 15 August 2015

#2: Blood: The Last Vampire (2000)


Director: Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Script: Kenji Kamiyama
Based On An Original Project
Voice Actors: Yûki Kudô (Saya); Saemi Nakamura (Makiho); Joe Romersa (David); Rebecca Forstadt (Sharon); Stuart Robinson (Louis)
Uses English and Japanese dialogue

Blood: The Last Vampire was significant for its pioneering use of computer assisted animation, the transition from hand drawn anime to the digitally crafted growing onward until hand drawing cels is virtually obsolete as in Western animation. Hand drawn anime from decades before to the digital assisted work of now shows a lot of differences in style and look, providing the latter with its own distinct looks but also nostalgia for the old anime. Revisiting Blood, the James Cameron quote on the UK Blu-Ray cover about the pioneering use of computers is the least interesting thing about this short theatrical work. Instead it's the premise that was used, from a script written by the future director the Ghost In The Shell television series and Eden of the East (2009), that's far more interest when the technology used for anime is common place now.

Blood has the traditional stock character in anime of the mysterious and cold blooded young woman as the protagonist, the aloof and brooding individual named Saya. Set in 1966 on an American army base in Japan, the Yokota Air Base, she is assigned by a secret American group to hunt down vampiric entities called chiropterans. While wooden stakes and garlic could become cumbersome to carry around and use, Saya's best option to deal with these creatures is by way of a large kitana and evisceration. In only forty eight minutes, Blood encapsulates a simple story which leaves a lot left uncovered. As one of the rare horror anime in existence it makes a damn good attempt at vampire mythos. Terrible vampire stories are a universal language, not just in Japanese, and depicting horrifying bat-like entities that hide in human disguise, covering up their feedings with false suicides, Blood sticks out with a different take on them in only a small space of time.

The digital animation is undeniably crisp and good. Barring some obvious computer designed buildings and vehicles, this is a high budget theatrical release from Production I.G., who've produced some significant and beloved anime in their existence from numerous Mamoru Oshii works to The End of Evangelion (1997). The result is a short film that is both artistically rich and shows the digital technology at its best. Hand drawn animation in anime led to incredible work, exceptional examples of the hard work of individual animators, or entertaining and tripped out psychedelics, but I like how digital animation, alongside allowing sequences that would be arduous or impossible to draw by hand to exist, made a considerable impact on realistic looking designs and in developing atmosphere to the stories' settings. Hand drawn anime could provide some eye-catching mood to stories, but modern digital anime has a knack for really dank or moody urban locations especially at night, something Blood shows in being mostly set then. Isolated subway cars, desolate back alleys, an occupying US base on Halloween night, locations where everything feels lived in.

What stands out as the best part of Blood is what Kenji Kamiyama and the production crew decided to write as a story for this feature. It could've been a vampire story set in any time period, but decided to set it just before the Vietnam War around the real life Yokota Air Base is a very unexpected and inspired choice. Not only is the Pacific War between the US and Japan invoked, but it also invokes for me how the late Sixties and early Seventies were very turbulent in global politics, political protests and controversies in Japan directly involving the American bases on their country's soil. To use the location inherently brings this real history up even if it's never referenced. Sadly, while light novels, including one written by Mamoru Oshii, a manga and a videogame were created as follow on material, this version of Blood never had animated sequels that could delve into this setting more. It could've easily shot itself in the foot in discussing the politics, but as it stands Blood amazingly is one of the most subtle and fascinating takes on post-World War II Japan in anime I've seen without ever bringing up the subject.

That's not to suggest this is a profound study on the subject. The anime's real plot in the end is about real vampires in-between people dressed as vampires in the middle of a Halloween dance, but the context adds a significance. By merely showing the context as it does as surface dressing it shows a greater interest in the subject without ever becoming a commentary. A cross cultural world is depicted, sights of bars for American G.I.s, prostitutes, male transvestites and cross dressers, the children of American soldiers going to on-base schools and celebrating Halloween in costume unaware of the horrors taking place that same night. The realistic character designs add a fleshed out world to the content, and the fact the anime is bilingual in Japanese and English, including actresses switching between languages, gives an immediately different tone to this from other anime from its setting.

This context also adds to the horror story in the centre. No gothic castles, no dubious depictions of Goth culture, but something different. A secondary character, a Japanese nurse at the school called Makiho, shows the advantage of this detail in just untouched back-story. A plump middle aged woman, rarely depicted or drawn as realistically as here, she is mostly there to be traumatised by the horrors she sees, and for animators to draw as many different expressions of shock at Saya behaviour as possible, but without emphasising it so many things are left to ponder out of interest. Not only that she switches between her native language and English, as anime usually is in one language even when depicting non-Japanese characters, but also the fact she is a Christian from the prominent crucifix around her neck. This background detail is seen in the other characters and everything else, and what is absent in the plot still has clues to entertain.

The production staff clearly don't show a hatred for the USA either, seeing the war in-between the lines with great complexity, lovingly rendered scenes of an army band playing real thirties jazz, carved Jack o' Lanterns littering the base and, amusingly, the sole scene in a classroom where young teenagers are apparently being taught about German expressionist movies and horror films from the text on the blackboard. If anything, alongside the chiropterans, it's the approaching Vietnam War which is ominous, sounds of passing planes continuously heard and the end credits using real war footage of US soldiers depicted in a fuzzy haze. If this had an animated sequel with the same tone, it would've fascinating to see how the production team would've depicted the encroaching final years of the sixties, not only the war in full tilt but depicting Japan in that decade, which would've instantly made it one of the most unique horror works animated or otherwise to tackle vampiric monsters. (Oshii's light novel continuation, which was released in the West translated, seems to be more a documentation of the political and social events of that period with a small narrative running through, which adds further intrigue).

Unfortunately Blood: The Last Vampire, as said, never had animated sequels. Blood+ (2005-6) and Blood-C (2011), the later a collaboration with famous all-female manga creators CLAMP, are spin-offs set in different interpretations of the world. There is also the 2009 live action film as well which I saw at the cinema, a film that didn't set the world on fire at all but was a memorable cinema experience regardless of the movie. I don't know what's weirder with the live action film - that it came to being when adaptations for anything from Akira (1988) to Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6) feel by the wayside or that I saw the result in a multiplex in the middle of a June day in 2009 in the first place. It's sad as revisiting Blood: The Last Vampire, I really liked it. It would've been a double edged sword if it got official sequels. It would've likely not had as high a production if made for TV or straight-to-video. And it could've been lost to terrible story writing. But like other one-offs it offers so many what-ifs for its characters and setting you still wish it was a franchise. Ironically while promoting what anime would become in production, this really feels like more of the old straight-to-video anime that would diminish and die from the year of its release onward rather than as the theatrical feature it actually was, especially those that never had any additional episodes to finish the narratives. It's almost a fitting eulogy to them in a strange way.


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